How to Keep “Geek Speak” Out of Client Conversations

confused-customer

As a fellow technician, I know how difficult it can be to have a simplified discussion with customers about highly technical matters. What is bandwidth? Why do I need an x64 processor instead of an x86? How does more RAM actually make a computer faster? These are just a sample of the questions that get tossed my way every week. While I know very well how to tell another technician about these items, bringing the discussion down to the level of the average Joe is another matter.

People skills are tough to teach and that’s a known fact. Many computer repair business owners that I’ve spoken to have outright admitted that they will gladly hire a great people-person that has limited technical skills over an individual with a skillset that is flipped the other way around. My previous years in working IT support for a public high school has taught me that tech people (in general – I’m not saying all) have a hard time in remembering their audience in the line of support they are providing. This, in turn, creates an unwarranted bias against those providing tech support and what they represent.

While not every technical topic can be easily translated into “normal person speak,” a technician needs to make this a top priority in dealing with customers. While some customers will gladly stop you and ask for clarification, many people will merely nod their heads and give you blind agreement over the material being discussed. This not only does a disservice to the person receiving support, but is more often than not seen as condescending to the customer. Saturday Night Live had some excellent skits back in the day called “Nick Burns – Your Company’s Computer Guy” that played off this very facet (in a humorous way, I might add – check one video out for yourself.)

One of the reasons my company FireLogic receives so much praise is because of the people-first approach we take to providing service. I’m not going to lie and say that I’m perfect in this regard myself, but I do make every effort possible to watch over my lingo when consulting customers. It’s easy to get lost in technical acronyms and related geek speak when you are knowledgeable about the realm of computer repair, but remember that your customers are counting on YOU to act as curator and translator of their technical problems. They hire you as an expert in your field and expect to be treated as equals and not as subjects in a college classroom.

Here are the key things to keep in mind when having technical discussions with your own customers.

Use simple comparisons for easy context in technical explanations

This has to be my top tip for dealing with sticky scenarios that involve highly technical concepts that your customer just won’t otherwise comprehend. It merely involves using the simple and known to explain the unknown to customers in a logical manner. I’ve got plenty of examples in my bag of tricks, but here are some common comparisons I make to otherwise difficult technology questions and terms:

Question: Why is more RAM better for my PC?
Answer: Think of RAM as the number of hands your computer has. The more hands it has available, the more work it can get done at once, which translates simply into better real-life performance for your everyday tasks.

Question: Why should I use OpenDNS instead of the DNS my ISP offers?
Answer: DNS is like the yellow pages that your computer refers to anytime you want to visit a website. There are many flavors of yellow pages out there, but OpenDNS is safer because it’s like getting a phone directory that is already cleaned up to remove many of the bad and fake entries that otherwise exist. The cleaner your phone directory is, the safer your online experience will be.

Good car mechanics are skilled at the very same types of translations for their customers. And it wouldn’t be a misguided guess to believe that those mechanics which can relate tough topics to their customers with ease are the ones which will likely see repeat business and foster better (and more) referrals.  I’ve been practicing these kinds of discussions with my customers for years and can usually even come up with comparisons out of thin air. For some techs, this will take a lot of practice, but it will come easier as time goes on. I’m consistently praised for my ability to level with customers in light of previous technicians that simply talked down to them.

Skip the acronyms – unless a customer already knows them

Some of my customers already have knowledge of what DNS, RAM, and CPU stand for. However, unless I know for a fact that someone has already made it known to me that they are aware of an acronym, I won’t bring it up in discussion. Avoid it like the plague. A CPU can just as easily be called a processor; RAM can be equated just fine as memory; and a PSU will always be a simple power supply in the end.

You don’t have to prove to yourself that you have the knowledge of various acronyms, or worse yet, believe that you should be showing off to customers by whipping out acronyms. You may think that you are coming off as experienced and knowledgeable, but you’re going to build a trust gap with your customers more often than not.

One of my colleagues at FireLogic is the funny butt end of an ongoing inside joke due to his past usage of the acronym “API” with a crowd of bewildered entry level computer users at a volunteer training event we held. While it’s a funny rub for us as techs, it’s a prime example that geek speak has its place. And that place is a technician’s lunch break, away from customers.

Use the “lowest common denominator” skill of technical conversation

This piece of advice should be the easiest way to keep geek speak to a minimum. If you’re prone to bringing out the Einstein when you talk to customers, perhaps it’s best to merely assume by default that each customer is unbeknownst to a technical topic unless you either have previous experience with them or they blatantly prove otherwise during discussion. There’s no way to otherwise go astray in your conversation if you treat each customer as a “newbie” and steer clear of the acronyms techs love to throw around.

This is personally how I keep myself in check. I put on the mental brakes that allow me to think twice before conversing about a particular topic that may be above their heads. It’s too easy to otherwise ramble on and get exposed to the inevitable “mental slip” that occurs when we get too technical and don’t even realize it. If you treat each customer under the assumption that they need an explanation, you can catch yourself before the geek speak hits. The worst that can happen is someone will merely cue you in as to their comfort level with the topic at hand, and you can then let your guard down.

Written communication is not exempt

It pains me when technicians that otherwise have excellent verbal communication skills with customers let themselves blabber in tech speak in their invoicing or emails. Your written word is in some cases more critical than the spoken tongue because first and foremost, you generally can’t take back documented record! Whether it be a mailed invoice or a sent email, the “undo” button generally doesn’t exist.

It’s easy to let tech speak fill an email without thinking twice because many people naturally don’t keep mental check of what they write. It’s almost an innate blindness towards realizing what was said as a sentence rolls onward. I get caught in this conundrum many times over when I write articles, and hence why I always proofread my writing for clarity before they get posted. The same guidance should apply to all written communication you have with a customer. Keep it concise; keep out the acronyms; and don’t think that just because you write it they will read it. Customers can have selective reading and exercise that skill quite well.

Poor customer communication can have as much damage on your growing business as inadequate technical work. It breeds mistrust and it tends to foster a growing perception gap between a client and a technician. Using the above guidelines that I practice and enforce at my company FireLogic can be good ways to improve the approach you take with your own customers. You don’t need to be an English major to follow some simple techniques that can ultimately make a great technician an even better communicator.

How do you approach working with customers when it comes to technical lingo? What has worked for you, and what hasn’t? Let us know in the comments section below!



Derrick Wlodarz

About the Author

Derrick Wlodarz
More articles by me...
Derrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist that owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over 8+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him directly at derrick@wlodarz.net.

Comments (15)

  • Aaron says:

    Do you mind if I use that RAM analogy? In return I’ll give you permission to use my De-fragmentation analogy :P I’ve been commented on it many times before, because customers always ask how they can slightly speed up their old machine so time and time again I explain the process of de-fragmentation. Although many don’t actually know what it does, and I want the customer to understand what it does and how it helps. So my analogy goes like this:

    Imagine your Hard Drive as a bowl of matches. Each match has a number on it. For your computer to load up windows it has to pickup matches 1-100 in consecutive order. However, someone’s been kind enough to pick up all several thousand matches and throw them back into this bowl all jumbled up. So your computer slowly sifts through this bowl to get matches 1-100 and eventually loads windows. But. After you de-fragment it, you put all these matches in groups. So when you want to load windows your computer just picks up the group of matches called “windows”.

    And that right there is my amazing analogy that I’m actually really proud of. But seriously, care to share some more of your own? I love these things.

  • Tim says:

    My favourite memory analogy:

    Size of RAM is size of your desk.
    Size of hard disk is size of your filing cabinet.

    If you are using a small desk you have to constantly shuffle papers in and out of your filing cabinet.
    If you are using a larger desk you can have more papers out at once.

  • Big Jim says:

    Tim I like the desk/filing cabinet analogy, very good :)

  • Derrick Wlodarz says:

    I don’t mind what analogies people steal from me. I bet I’m not the first person to come up with them anyway!

  • Tony Scarpelli says:

    I use the following:

    32 bit or 64 bit OS are like lanes in the highway-think of New Jersey or California where they have 8 or 10 lanes going each way. The more lanes the more data simultaneously moves to the CPU. Or Alternately you can use number of bits as number of train cars in a train.

    CPU speed is like the speed of the van/train.

    Memory is like the number of people in the van/train.

    Hard drive is like the shopping mall/Train station or a big Filing cabinet if you want to change analogies.

    As far as finger and hands I use that analogy to describe why the computer needs drivers loaded so that the brain knows what body parts it has and how to use them.

    I talk about the BIOS as the basic nervous system directly connected to the brain.

    The motherboard as the bus or skeleton which connects the rest of the parts.

    • Paul B says:

      Good article and here are some analogies my staff and I use every day:

      Memory = In Out Trays on your desk for fast instant access to your files
      Hard Disk = Filing Cabinet on the other side of the room which gives your slow access to your files.

      If you only have one tray (1GB!) on your desk then once the tray is full you need to keep walking back and forth to your filing cabinet swapping out the files you need with the ones you don’t. If you add another In/Out tray (2GB) then you can store more files on your desk that you can access quickly.

      When customers talk about changing from a PC to a Mac (or vice versa) or they want to transfer their files or programs over I tell them this is like putting petrol in your diesel engine! They are incompatible with each other.

  • Eamon Sunderland says:

    When asked “why do I need to update my anti-virus every day” I always compare anti virus software to a security man on the door of a nightclub.

    If the security man knows who the trouble makers are he wont let them in and everything runs smoothly in the club. Tomorrow there will be different trouble makers around trying to get in so he must be informed (updated) every day as to who they are so they can’t gain entry.

    If they can’t get in then they can’t cause trouble so keep your security guy informed regularly and keep trouble out…

    I too compare defragmentation to your desk. If all the files on your desk are scattered around (fragmented) it will take you ages to find what you’re looking for but if you tidy them up (defragment) and put them into trays you will find your files much faster.

  • john3347 says:

    But Derrick, you don’t understand! The only way an egghead IT Professional knows to impress his customer is to baffle them with bulls**t. They also do not know how to speak words. They are completely immersed in two, and sometimes three and four, letter abbreviations. Is this code supposed to somehow be more efficient, or what?

    Professionals, just talk to your customers like they would talk to you. Pretend computers were politics or something else that you know nothing about, but your customer may.

  • Steven Summit says:

    Derrick,

    Your two analogies are the best I’ve seen so far. If you ever feel like writing a book, do so on that topic. I know I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

    I’ve been doing IT work since 1996, full time (and used to practice law), so please believe me.

  • waterbay ec says:

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  • Adam C says:

    Defragment: Think of your hard drive as the library, when people return books, they just drop them in the return slot. Then the defragment program is the librarian, she puts all of the books back on the shelf in an organized manner so you can find them latter in a faster fashion.

    I use a lot of comparisons to cars as well, 4 cylinder verses 8v, mini truck verses Simi truck, Cavalier verses Corvette…. Size of the trunk verses passengers verses raw power verses fuel economy.

    You just need to find an easy comparison to something that normal people can relate to..

  • chad says:

    I use a car analogy a lot also, hard drive is your gas tank, doesn’t have a huge effect on how fast your computer/car is just how much gas/data your car will hold, memory is like your fuel line, and cpu/processor is your motor.
    most the time people need an memory upgrade so I explain it like this, “the motor you have is more than big enough, it might not be a corvette engine or anything but its atleast a v-6, but right now your fuel line is about as big as this little wire here, so no matter how big your engine is your only getting little drips of fuel, so even if we upgraded you to a corvette LS3 super charged engine, that little bit of gas is only going to let you get up to a bout 25 miles per hour.

  • chad says:

    For people that fail at the car analogy I switch to a modified version of the desk and file cabinet explanation, “your sitting at your desk and you are the processor, and part of your job is a reporter, and as a reporter you need to do a lot of research and cross referencing, but your file cabinet is all the way across the room, and you have a person bringing you the files you need, that person is your ram (I tend to use ram at this point because memory already has a hard definition in their head) now lets say your working on a story about global warming so you ask ‘tim’ your secretary yo grab you a chart on rising temperatures, while tim is fetching your file you realize your also going to need a file regarding current ozone depletion AND size of polar ice caps, but now your stuck waiting for tim to return with the temp chart, then you will have to wait for him to go and fetch you the ozone file, AND THEN he can get you the polar ice cap file. If you had more ram its like having more secretaries” Depending on how well they are grasping what I’m telling them I will sometimes also use this to delve in to dual channel ram, ” now if we just add a 2gb stick to next to the current 1gb stick you have you will have 3 people lined up behind each other waiting to use the bank of file cabinets, but if we replace the ram with matching pairs you could have 2 people bringing you files while 2 other people returning the ones you are done with.”

  • Mike says:

    Memory:
    HardDrive – Long term memory, stays with you for a while.
    RAM – Short term memory, you forget it when you go to bed.